Three letters dispatched from the Siberian city of Chita appeared in the February 14, 1920 issue of Soviet Russia: A Weekly Devoted to the Spread of Truth About Russia. Re-printed by the editor for their “rather interesting data concerning conditions in Siberia,” the letters paint a bleak but intriguing picture of life on the tundra.
The correspondent opens the first letter with a stoical weather report. “The temperature at present is 35 below zero,” he writes, “Last year’s coldest was 85 below zero. You find pigeons and sparrows lying dead in the streets where they fell frozen.” The relentless hyperborean cold struck down not only birds. “Human beings also have been found frozen to death in the streets,” he continues. “The poor, on finding the bodies, remove the clothing and put it on themselves. The naked bodies have been devoured by dogs, and now present a terrible sight.”
Though their less lucky comrades lie frozen in the streets, the younger inhabitants of Chita remain unfazed by the blustery, freezing winds. “Even when the thermometer shows 26 below zero, one may sometimes see a young girl and a young man sitting on a bench in the park, chatting pleasantly.” Such amusements come cheap. “The admission to the park, in summer, costs three rubles,” the correspondent reports, “on Sundays, seven rubles.”
Other amusements abound in Chita for souls rugged enough to withstand the cold. The city attracts first-rate acting talent from across the Soviet Union. And those entertainers of hearty enough constitution to put down roots in the Siberian city enjoy the esteem of its most important officials. Actresses rank among the most influential people in Siberia, the correspondent continues. “Even great generals consider themselves honored when they have an opportunity to shake hands with an actress!”
Food is not as scarce or tasteless as inhabitants of warmer climes would believe. In Soviet Siberia, beef, chicken, milk, butter and bread all sell at prices lower than in Japan. Yet sweets come at a premium and are rationed. The correspondent in Siberia informs readers that “you cannot buy more than four pounds of sugar at one time per person, and even this only on Saturdays.”
The three letters printed in Soviet Russia reveal that even in the dead of winter Siberia wants not for unique pleasures (sugar availability nothwithstanding). One such pleasure is this hearty, yet simple and economical, Russian soup from a 1901 issue of The Epicure, which with the townsfolk of Chita might well have warmed themselves after a chilly kibbutz in the park.
Barscz a la Polonaise
SHRED finely six beetroots, four leeks, four onions, a small head of Savoy cabbage, and four celery knobs; smother these vegetables in butter over a slow fire and moisten with five quarts of broth and one quart of strained fermented beetroot juice; add three pounds of brisket of beef (previously parboiled) and one duck partially roasted. Soak a handful of dried mushrooms in cold water, cut in shreds and add to the soup. Add also a faggot of herbs composed of parsley, a sprig of marjoram, two bayleaves and one clove.
Remove the duck as soon as tender, and let the soup simmer until the beef is cooked. Then remove the faggot of herbs and the fat.
Cut the beef and the duck into small pieces. Cook a dozen small sausages (chipolata) and remove the skin (when done). Add these and both meats to the soup.
Before serving, scrape twelve sour beets and press their liquid through a cloth; add this to the soup and heat well.
Serve with sour cream separate.
A pinch of chopped fennel should be added before serving. If no fresh fennel is at hand, a sprig of dried may be added to the faggot of herbs.
Note :—The characteristic feature of this soup is that it should be of a light acid taste and of a reddish tint. If, though, it is cooked in an ordinary saucepan or kept in a retinned Bainmarie, it is impossible to retain this peculiar tint. Some cooks recommend one to add claret to the broth, but this is not necessary if the above directions are carefully carried out, and if an earthen vessel is used.
Sour beets are prepared by peeling eighteen beetroots, putting into a jar, covering with lukewarm water, adding two handfuls of soft breadcrumbs, covering well, and keeping in a warm place for five or six days—by that time fermentation should have set in.